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‘Nu’ system ranks nutritional values

So, you don’t know the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats? Simple and complex sugars? Which multisyllabic words on food labels are the vitamins and minerals, and which are the unhealthy preservatives?

If you’re trying to figure it out at the supermarket – or if you’ve long since surrendered and decided to eat whatever you think might be healthy – a nutritional value system called NuVal looks to take away the guesswork, and it just arrived in Western New York. Tops Markets recently introduced the system on more than 30,000 items it sells.

“Basically, it’s a scoring system from 1 to 100,” said Katie McKenna, spokeswoman for the regionally based chain. “The higher the score, the better the nutrition on the food. You can see the score on the top left (or right) of the price tag.

“Blueberries are a perfect 100; broccoli is a perfect 100.”

Cookies, not so much.

But NuVal can help cookie-lovers find the most nutritional items in the cookie aisle – and the least nutritional.

The system came together out of a conference of scientists, doctors and nutritionists concerned about chronic health conditions diet can influence, including heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

A Chicago-based team of those professionals developed NuVal, so it’s a third-party judge of the products it rates. Supermarkets send food labels and ingredients lists, and the team takes things from there.

“The score is based on a complex algorithm,” McKenna said. “This is the way that NuVal describes it: ‘It’s the good stuff divided by the bad stuff.’ You take the good stuff – your fiber, your protein, your omega-3s, vitamins, minerals, nutrients – and they divide it by the bad stuff – fats, cholesterol; they look at trans fats very closely – and then this algorithm produces a score.”

Not all products have been sent to NuVal, McKenna said, such as spices, water and other items that aren’t scored because they don’t offer a variety of nutrients. Some newer foods at the chain have yet to be tested.

Not surprisingly, many of the foods in the produce section tout the highest scores. Processed food aisles tend to include the lowest scores.

“When you look at something like a potato chip, you’re not going to get the fiber, you’re not going to get the protein, you’re not going to get the vitamins, minerals,” McKenna said. “That’s true even when you compare chicken to broccoli. What we tell people is, ‘You’re going to want to shop in that category.’ You can’t compare a chocolate chip cookie to broccoli. However, a mom might be walking down the aisle and say, ‘You know what, I’m going to trade up from a chocolate chip cookie to something that’s a little bit better. Maybe an oatmeal cookie. Maybe something that’s fortified with flaxseed or omega-3s.”

The system produced some surprising results. A glimpse through the organic food section this week at the International Tops in Amherst included an organic savory beef gravy with a score of 1, an organic pasta with a score of 10, and barbecue sauces and marinades with scores from 2 to 9. On the flip side, a wild-caught can of albacore tuna scored an 81.

The system also makes the shopping experience faster.

“Nobody wants to read food labels and nutrition facts panels all day,” McKenna said. “You do have to trust the system, but it’s an easy way.”

• See related story, Page 11